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Becoming a Man - Quillette
written by William Buckner

“In the puberty rites, the novices are made aware of the sacred value of food and assume the adult condition; that is, they no longer depend on their mothers and on the labor of others for nourishment. Initiation, then, is equivalent to a revelation of the sacred, of death, sexuality, and the struggle for food. Only after having acquired these dimensions of human existence does one become truly a man.” – Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, 1958

“To be a man in most of the societies we have looked at, one must impregnate women, protect dependents from danger, and provision kith and kin.” – David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making, 1990

“Keep your head clear and know how to suffer like a man.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, 1952

There are commonalities of human behavior that extend beyond any geographic or cultural boundary. Every known society has a sexual division of labor – many facets of which are ubiquitous the world over. Some activities are universally considered to be primarily, or exclusively, the responsibility of men, such as hunting large mammals, metalworking, and warfare. Other activities, such as caregiving, cooking, and preparing vegetable foods, are nearly always considered primarily the responsibility of women.


Across vastly different societies, with very dissimilar political systems, it is often similar sets of skills that are considered desirable for their (predominately male) leaders. A man can gain status through displays of key talents; through his ability to persuade; by developing and maintaining important social relationships; and by solving difficult problems. In his classic paper on the political systems of ‘egalitarian’ small-scale societies, anthropologist Christopher Boehm writes, “a good leader seems to be generous, brave in combat, wise in making subsistence or military decisions, apt at resolving intragroup conflicts, a good speaker, fair, impartial, tactful, reliable, and morally upright.” In his study on the Mardu hunter-gatherers of Australia, anthropologist Robert Tonkinson wrote that the highest status was given to the “cooks,” which is the title given to “the older men who prepare the many different ceremonial feasts, act as advisors and directors of most rituals (and perform the most important “big” dances), and are guardians of the caches of sacred objects.”

Anthropologist Paul Roscoe writes that some of the important skills of ‘Big Men’ in New Guinea horticulturist societies are, “courage and proficiency in war or hunting; talented oratory; ability in mediation and organization; a gift for singing, dancing, wood carving, and/or graphic artistry; the ability to transact pigs and wealth; ritual expertise; and so on.” In the volume Cooperation and Collective Action (2012), Roscoe notes further that the traits that distinguish a ‘Big Man’ are “his skills in…conflict resolution; his charisma, diplomacy, ability to plan, industriousness, and intelligence” and “his abilities in political manipulation.” In their paper on ‘The Big Man Mechanism,’ anthropologist Joseph Henrich and his colleagues describe the common pathways to status found across cultures, noting that, “In small-scale societies, the domains associated with prestige include hunting, oratory, shamanic knowledge and combat.”


In his book How Can I Get Through To You? (2002), author Terrence Real describes visiting a remote village of Maasai pastoralists in Tanzania. Real asked the village elders (all male) what makes a good warrior and a good man. After a vibrant discussion, one of the oldest males stood up and told Real;

I refuse to tell you what makes a good morani [warrior]. But I will tell you what makes a great morani. When the moment calls for fierceness a good morani is very ferocious. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender. Now, what makes a great morani is knowing which moment is which! (Real, 64)

This quote is also favorably cited by feminist author bell hooks in her book The Will to Change (2004). While hooks and Real offer perspectives quite different from my approach here, the words of the Massai elder illustrate an ideal conception of masculinity that may appeal to many people of diverse ideologies and cultural backgrounds. A great warrior, a great man, is discerning – not needlessly hostile nor chronically deferential, he instead recognizes the responsibilities of both defending, and caring for, his friends and family.


As anthropologist David G. Gilmore notes in Manhood in the Making, exhortations such as “be a man” are common across societies throughout the world. Such remarks represent the recognition that being a man came with a set of duties and responsibilities. If men failed to stay cool under pressure in the midst of hunting or warfare, and thus failed to provide for, or protect, their families and allies, this would have been devastating to their societies.

Throughout our evolutionary history, the cultures that had a sexual division of labor, and socialized males to help provide for and protect the group, would have had a better chance at survival, and would have outcompeted those societies that failed to instill such values.

Some would argue, quite reasonably, that in contemporary, industrialized, democratic societies, values associated with hunting and warfare are outmoded. Gilmore writes that, “So long as there are battles to be fought, wars to be won, heights to be scaled, hard work to be done, some of us will have to “act like men.”” Yet the challenges of modern societies for most people are often very different from those that occurred throughout much of our history.

Still, some common components of the traditional, idealized masculine identity I describe here may continue to be useful in the modern era, such as providing essential resources for the next generation of children, solving social conflicts, cultivating useful, practical skills, and obtaining socially valuable knowledge. Obviously, these traits are not, and need not be, restricted to men. But when it comes to teaching the next generation of young males what socially responsible masculinity looks like, it might be worth keeping these historical contributions in mind. Not as a standard that one should necessarily feel unduly pressured by, but as a set of productive goals and aspirations that can aid in personal development and social enrichment.

The Behavioral Ecology of Male Violence:

“Aggressive competition for access to mates is much
more beneficial for human males than for females…”
~Georgiev et al. 1


To understand why this pattern is so consistent across a wide variety of culturally and geographically diverse societies, we need to start by looking at sex differences in reproductive biology.

Biologically, individuals that produce small, relatively mobile gametes (sex cells), such as sperm or pollen, are defined as male, while individuals that produce larger, less mobile gametes, such as eggs or ovules, are defined as female. Consequently, males tend to have more variance in reproductive success than females, and a greater potential reproductive output. Emperor of Morocco, Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty (1672–1727) was estimated to have fathered 1171 children from 500 women over the course of 32 years,6 while the maximum recorded number of offspring for a woman is 69, attributed to an unnamed 18th century Russian woman married to a man named Feodor Vassilyev.


Across a wide variety of taxa, the sex that produces smaller, mobile gametes tends to invest less in parental care than the sex that produces larger, less mobile gametes. For over 90 percent of mammalian species, male investment in their offspring ends at conception, and they provide no parental care thereafter.7 A male mammal can often increase his reproductive success by seeking to maximize mating opportunities with females, and engaging in violent competition with rival males to do so. From a fitness perspective, it may be wasteful for a male to provide parental care, as it limits his reproductive output by reducing the time and energy he spends competing for mates.
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High male sexual investment as a driver of extinction in fossil ostracods | Nature
Sexual selection favours traits that confer advantages in the competition for mates. In many cases, such traits are costly to produce and maintain, because the costs help to enforce the honesty of these signals and cues1. Some evolutionary models predict that sexual selection also produces costs at the population level, which could limit the ability of populations to adapt to changing conditions and thus increase the risk of extinction2,3,4.
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Strategic height adjustment - Marginal REVOLUTION
Professor Bogin’s study, carried out in collaboration with Dr Christiane Scheffler, at the University of Potsdam, and Professor Michael Hermanussen, from the University of Kiel, also explored a second phenomenon called competitive growth — where the ruling social classes adjust their height to exceed the subordinate population.

Prof Bogin said: “This is when the mean height of colonial or military migrants, who become the socially dominant group in the conquered country, surpasses the average height of the both the conquered people and the origin population.”

In one example, the researchers found that the height of Dutch colonial masters in Indonesia in the 19th and early 20th centuries was greater than the Indonesians they ruled, and also greater than social upper classes back in the Netherlands.

“This was also the case for English colonial masters in North America,” said Prof Bogin.

“We find that it is the superior social status of the conquerors that promotes their greater height.
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